I’ve never been in a monolingual community before. In my birthplace, I heard mostly English but there was always that hint of Italian and Chinese from one or two families living in the neighborhood. I can barely remember any of that though considering that I was eight when I left. Whitechapel could not have been more diverse. Among the English, there was Russian. There was polish. There was Yiddish, Hebrew, and German. There was always a bit of Indian and definitely, most certainly French. In the small flat above my mother and me, lived this old woman named Madame Renard, also known as Mrs. Fox. Mrs. Fox looked like a cartoon in the newspaper that had been crinkled up and left on the side of the road. She had friends but spent her days alone. On the corner of Flower Street, she would sit in an old rocking chair and observe the people walking past from seven am to seven pm. No one ever bothered her or spoke to her. We all knew that she couldn’t speak English and the other native French speakers in town just didn’t bother. However, my mother, every day, would walk past Flower St. to get to the school house. On her way, she would say “bonjour” to Mrs. Fox and give a little “Ca va?” to which Mrs. Fox would reply with a nod and a toothless little laugh.
Leander had a different relationship with this woman. He never spoke to her (none of us did), but he told me that he knew quite a lot about her. According to Leander, she sold hallucinogens from her home.
“She may look like a handful of sweets but that woman’s a cheeky little saleswoman.” He would say whenever we walked past her.
“Don’t be an arse.” I’d say to him and then he’d sigh and shake his head, saying,
“Alright, Bells, alright.”
Then there was Mary Jane Kelly. Mary Jane, as you might have guessed, never spoke to Mrs. Fox either. But, just like my mother and Leander, she had her own special place in my memories of the old Frenchwoman. When Mary wasn’t on the street corner at night, she was selling flowers during the day. She used to leave one red geranium next to the rocking chair every morning before Mrs. Fox came down.
“She likes geraniums I think.” Mary once told me, sipping into a beer.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“She smiles whenever she sees that I’ve left one.” Mary replied.
“Have you ever left any other kind of flower?” I questioned further.
“No but,” Mary then thought and scowled. “She just likes geraniums. I have a feeling she does.”
Then there was Avraham, little boy from an Ashkenazi Jewish family. He helped his father run a kosher bakery somewhere but no one ever bought bread from him. However, Avraham would always bring by a loaf of challah and leave it for Mrs. Fox on her rocking chair every Saturday morning. Mrs. Fox would find the bread, rip the braided loaf in half, eat one half, and then leave the other half on the ground for stray cats or the city rats.
On the corner of Flower st, lived a Russian man named Alexander. He dressed as a priest so no one ever gave him trouble when he first came to Whitechapel. But as time went on, everyone began to figure out that in truth, he wasn’t a priest at all. The man didn’t even believe in God. He would come down to the Ten Bells, have drink after drink after drink, and then leave with a whore. He carried a gun underneath his priest robes and a blade in his boot. Alexander was known to be kind of a psycho in fact. Every day, he would steal a bible from the nearest bookstore, sit outside the George yard, and rip out the pages. Once a week, (usually Wednesday), Alexander would bring a few pages to Mrs. Fox, then give them to her to keep. In fact, it got to the point where Mrs. Fox would keep a box under her rocking chair full of pages that alexander ripped out for her. Again, he never spoke to her (none of us did), but he knew her.
After Mrs. Fox died, the rocking chair sat empty on Flower St. My mother would glance at it when she walked by and pretend that the woman was still there, rocking back and forth. She would say “Bonjour Madame Renard,” as if she was still alive and then keep on walking to the school house. Whenever Leander and I would walk past the empty chair, he would say
“That woman sold drugs.”
Mary still left her a flower except instead of geraniums, she started leaving roses. Little Avraham would rip a loaf of challah in half; leave one piece on the chair and one on the ground. Alexander would take ripped bible pages and leave them in the box she kept. Nothing changed. It was as if she was never there but at the same time, it was as if she was always there and still rocking.